Do you only work on the bar?


The future of this industry, and indeed the solution to our recruitment woes is up-skilling and cross-training your team – by Adrian Gomes

603F43B5-D414-499B-AEF8-E6AEA85C2B53Here’s a question – is it enough to ‘just’ bartend? How many of us have had to contend with questions from the other side of the bar such as ‘is this your real job’, ‘are you doing this as a second job’…and so on. Now, not every query is an insult, sometimes the guest is just plain curious and showing an interest in you. Pretty soon though, the question’s going to be: ‘do you only work on the bar?’. The reason for that will be evident soon.

Let’s face facts – there are not enough chefs to fill all the vacancies in UK restaurants. After the ‘Great Resignation’ following the COVID-19 global pandemic, hospitality job vacancies rose 700% from November 2021 to January 2022, compared to the same period the year before. At the time of writing this, 149,000 positions remain unfilled across the UK hospitality industry, which accounts for more than 1 in 10 of total UK job vacancies across all sectors (source: ONS). So, what’s the solution? Apparently not Brexit (oh really, we didn’t see that coming, did we?!).

The industry currently faces an onslaught of challenges that almost none of us have had to deal with previously in our lifetimes – high inflation and cost of living, an energy crisis, an ongoing pandemic, a war on European soil, changing consumer drinking habits, an anti-booze Scottish Govt/SNP-Green coalition and many other micro-regional factors in different areas of the UK (rising housing costs due to second/holiday homes, etc.). On top of already-tight profit margins, bar owners/managers must balance the books with an ever-rising national minimum wage that consumers are unable, or unwilling, to fund through higher menu prices…as Frank Sinatra once crooned: “if you can make it here (UK hospitality, in this case), you can make it anywhere”.

Consider this, what if we killed two birds with one stone and we trained our teams to be able to work in both the kitchen and on the bar/floor. There are already venues doing this (UK Top 50 bar Ojo Rojo in Bournemouth is just one of them), but these are the exceptions.

Go back 15/20 years in this country and we had bartenders who wouldn’t have dared step foot on the floor to do table service, let alone scrub pots and pans. The newspaper at the end of the bar was about as close to the guests as they got, and God forbid if you interrupted them whilst they were doing the daily crossword puzzle to place an order. How rude of you.

These days, hospitality workers are multi-faceted front of house servers and the hospitality industry is better and more welcoming as a result. Dare I say, the smoking ban also offered an opportunity to rid the industry of some venues who had an antiquated attitude to customer service. Hey, I’m just speaking the truth…!

I digress…to reiterate though, the future of this industry, and indeed the solution to our recruitment woes, is up-skilling and cross-training your team. We introduced this ‘rear front of house’ concept at The Steading Bar in Strathdon back in 2019 when we opened.

The brief was to operate a kitchen without a chef, with the front of house team delivering a food offering that was complementary to the drinks and relevant to the surroundings of a modern country pub. The end result was a menu of pies, pickles and platters – all ingredients with decent shelf-lives and potential for preservation (freezing, pickling, etc.). Team members take it in turns to be on designated kitchen duty, as and when a food check comes on. All produce is sourced from local butchers and fine food suppliers. We might not be getting a Michelin star anytime soon, but that wasn’t the brief.

Someone who might be adding a Michelin star to his CV one day is Mike Kassabian(@mike. kassabian) from Lebanon. From early beginnings working closely with his dad at Knar, his family’s Armenian/Lebanese restaurant in Beirut, Mike’s passion for hospitality started to gather pace when he was studying finance at university, whilst working in a nightclub.

Vodka and cokes are not the sort of drinks that win Diageo World Class but despite his limited knowledge of drinks, he was inspired to enter the competition after attending an industry training seminar, incredibly securing a top 10 finish. Subsequently head-hunted to open a new Peruvian cocktail bar (Sapa) in the city, Mike was to finish runner-up in the same competition a year later, before finally winning it on his third attempt.

Following his success at the highest level, and now in charge of beverage programmes, Mike decided to follow his dream of culinary excellence and sought to stage at a world-renowned restaurant. Both Copenhagen’s NOMA and Oslo’s Maaemo came knocking, with Mike taking on a three-month internship at the latter.

Although he already knew how to cook, it was at Maaemo working on the protein section that he honed his butchery skills doing everything from gutting, de-scaling, de-shelling, slicing, skinning…you get the picture. Mike says, “The energy in a kitchen is different with a huge focus on the detail, as well as on cleaning. We deep-clean everyday.” In terms of the professionalism of the kitchen teams, he says “When working in restaurants at that level, you must be aware of noise, perfection in the detail and how you approach the guests – fun but not too much fun, humble and, again, detail in how the table looks, the angle the cutlery is set at…”.

An opportunity to return to Lebanon to open his own restaurant almost beckoned were it not for that devastating explosion in Beirut that not only saw investors pull out of the project, but even his family restaurant ended up destroyed. A currency-devaluation and an economy in tatters left the dream even further from a reality. Truly heart-breaking.

Mike Kassabian is currently working at a three star establishment in Valence, France called Maison Pic (working under famed chef AnneSophie Pic) integrating kitchen techniques into the cocktail programme and taking guests on a journey of pairings, perfumery, distillation and fermentation with ingredients such as tea, kombucha and miso.

The bar and kitchen also share any potential waste (spirit-washed butters and leftover distillations, for example) demonstrating a closed-loop ethos that mirrors Mike’s impressive career. Quoting Marco Pierre White, Mike says “Perfection is a lot of little things done right”.

Moving from one industry beacon to another, ‘Indie Bartender’ Danil Nevsky (@CocktailMan) has amassed almost 65k followers on Instagram with his stark views on bartending trends and training programmes. Here’s a little-known fact, Dan is actually an Aberdeen alumni and has never forgotten his roots, making time for anyone who gets in touch for career advice, bar takeovers or in this case, a quote for an article on bartenders who cross-over to kitchen life.

Dan says, “Working in a kitchen for six months (at Tales & Spirits, Amsterdam) made me more humble. I realised the cavern of difference in knowledge between chefs and bartenders when it comes to the raw ingredients we work with. Our Head Chef could identify if a fish had been re-frozen, just by looking at it and feeling it with his fingers. He taught me knife skills and basic cutting techniques, how to clean properly and even how everyday fruit and vegetables should be handled and prepared. To this day I judge cocktail bars on their back of house organisation, equipment & basic kitchen skills. It separates the pretenders with the real pros more so than their knowledge of Liquid Intelligence.”

And that, my friends, is why we need to get more bartenders in the kitchen.

Written by Adrian Gomes, The Tippling House (@10dollarshake)

Main pic: Mike Kassabian


Category: Features, News, People
Tags: Adrian Gomes, Mike Kassabian, recruitment